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With a fresh coaching staff, the Royal Knights hope to curb some of the problems of the past.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published August 25, 2006
NEW PORT RICHEY - The names have changed at River Ridge. The problems haven't.
The Royal Knights haven't had a winning season since going 7-3 in 1999. Soon after last season ended, Mike DeGennaro, who has been at the school since its 1991 opening, resigned as the second coach in school history. He went 15-45 in six seasons. His best was 5-5 in 2000. His worst was last year, 0-10.
Expansion hurt River Ridge, sure. Graduations and transfers sapped the Knights of talent, depth and experience. But even when the cupboard was full, those teams struggled mentally to put it together.
New coach Tim Stevens and his staff inherit a daunting challenge: turn around a program that still faces many of the same problems that vexed the last coaching staff. But there are just two starters back along with 10 mostly inexperienced seniors, no depth and a new problem: keeping players from transferring out.
"That's one of our main objectives right now, to get the River Ridge kids to stay at River Ridge and play at River Ridge," said Stevens, who would not identify players who have left. "I think we'll get there, but it's never easy to start out. But right now the kids I've got out on the field are all working hard and all have a good attitude about it and seem excited about trying to get this thing turned around."
Stevens lost just four games the past nine seasons as Land O'Lakes' JV coach. River Ridge has lost at least seven games the past five seasons.
Juniors Blake Spinks and Mike Disparti are the quarterbacks. Spinks, perhaps the stronger passer, didn't play last year. Disparti, who has more command of the I-formation offense, was the JV starter last year.
Running back is the strength. Sophomore Justin Ayers brings good size, speed and smarts. Junior Markel Bell is an elusive, shifty runner just like his older brother, former River Ridge star Sam Bell. Shawn Ford is the plowhorse. Stevens hopes one running style will set up a defense to be exploited by another.
The offensive line - left tackle Steve Koepin, left guard George Sabbas, center Kevin Wicklein, right guard Travis Shreck and right tackle Bill Mazalewski - is set. But there's no depth. Tight end James Gossard gives either quarterback a 6-foot-4 target, as does rangy 6-5 wideout Lance Babcock, who comes in from the basketball team.
Stevens wants to switch between four- and five-man fronts on defense, and he likes his defensive line, especially David Sowers. Ford and Ayers join fullback Mike Houck and Andrew Singer at linebacker. Spinks, Disparti and Babcock join Eddie Bennett as defensive backs.
Stevens' inexperienced roster might have one upside: new attitudes unburdened by the past.
"They're very excited," the coach said. "They were ready for a new challenge and a chance to have a little success."